The trouble with cooking during the week is it seems so darn daily. Every day around 4 or 5 p.m. the dreaded question comes, "What's for dinner tonight?"
It's enough to make the cook go on strike. But these days in a topsy-turvy economy, we need all the help we can get to keep on cooking at home so we keep within a dwindling budget.
The common theme in cookbooks for during-the-week meals is getting food on the table as fast as possible after a hectic, exhausting day at work. But the time it takes to get from refrigerator to table doesn't tell the whole story, according to Michele Urvater, author of the "Monday to Friday Cookbook" (Workman softcover, $14.95) and a corporate chef who has catered, taught, lectured and consulted about food for 15 years.
"People are busier than ever," she said on a book tour to Baltimore recently. "The things that have worked in the past just don't work any more.
"The biggest problem seems to be getting the ingredients in the house. If you don't have the ingredients, you can't even think about real cooking. You go out for pizza or have pasta."
Even though she is a professional chef, her emphasis is on the pantry rather than the clock. She believes maintaining a well-stocked pantry guarantees you will always have something to cook even when you don't have the energy to make still another after-work trip to the grocery store.
In fact, she believes setting up a pantry is so important she takes 32 pages of her book to show readers how to stock everything from rice and cornmeal to white wine and Madeira. The pantry often drives the recipes. She relies on clam juice as a substitute for fish stock. Cornmeal, canned tomatoes and canned chicken broth provide the platform for a polenta soup. Canned pesto does duty as a seasoning accent in pasta sauces, cold salads and as a sandwich spread.
The only things you will need to shop for -- fresh produce, meats, fish and poultry -- should keep a few days in the refrigerator, minimizing the weekday trips to the grocery.
"Instead of a frantic last-minute trip to the grocery store, use the time between work and dinner to unwind," she says in her book.
The book even provides dinners that come right from the well-stocked pantry, such as no-work salmon chowder made with cannedsalmon, frozen corn kernels, canned tomatoes, bottled clam juice, white rice and seasoning.
Ms. Urvater says we have to become more flexible in how we think about dinner. It doesn't always need to include an appetizer, entree, starch, vegetable and dessert. Whole grain bread can be the meal's starch. Meat or fish doesn't have to be included in every meal. Dinner can be merely soup and salad.
"This is real life," she says. "This is not project cooking. This is not a competition to impress your friends."
So, how do you start?
After you fill your pantry and make sure you have the right equipment, Ms. Urvater said you need her five basic planning steps:
Step 1: Make a weekly calendar. Record upcoming events at the beginning of each month, making sure to keep the calendar up to date. Glance at the calendar right before you do your weekly shopping. Think about the meals you need to cook and plan accordingly.
Step 2: Match meals to schedules. For example, if you know everyone but the cook will be home late Monday but you aren't sure how many will be eating, prepare a soup Sunday night that can be reheated or turn Sunday's cold roast beef into a main course salad.
Step 3: Divvy up the tasks. Someone should be assigned to set and clear the table at dinner time. Another person can be assigned to scrub potatoes and other vegetables. Someone else can be assigned to assemble ingredients needed for a blender sauce and keep them in the refrigerator until the cook gets home.
Step 4: Make a well-planned shopping list. On Saturday or Sunday, decide what you'll need for the week. Get out the recipes to make a detailed shopping list. If you have a computer, make a list of the items you always want to have on hand but need to buy frequently. Print it out weekly. Tack it on the refrigerator and note when you need to buy an item. Write in other items on the bottom of the list.
Step 5: Plan for Sunday start up cooking. This can be as simple as cooking a double batch of the dinner meal and reheating leftovers during the week. If you have time, you can also cook another mid-week dinner ahead for reheating later.
In fact, leftovers are an important part of the plan. In the margin of the book, Ms. Urvater gives "second time around" suggestions and presents a couple of pages on leftovers.
The lesson is simple: Your family won't get sick of the leftovers if you learn how to disguise them. This can mean serving leftover pasta with a herb vinaigrette and chopped fresh vegetables. Or thinning casseroles such as rice pilaf or baked-bean dishes with liquid, tossing in some meat and serving it as a hot soup.
Never throw anything away, she says -- even that last bit of pesto, olive oil or chutney. Add some oil and vinegar or lemon juice right to the bottle, shake and you have created an original dressing. Leftover shreds of cheese, spoons of plain yogurt or a couple bites of ratatouille can be fillings for tacos, tortillas or omelets.
Although many of her recipes can be put together in less than 15 or 20 minutes, she says she thinks of her cooking as flexible rather than fast.
"I love to make pork roast in the winter," she says. "I stick it in the oven and it takes an hour and 45 minutes. Meanwhile, I do something else. I don't care if something like this takes two hours to cook. It's not two hours of my time; it's two hours of the oven's time."